Smart People Stopping Trollies

Richard Epstein taught at the University of Chicago for 38 years before retiring,* then promptly came out of retirement to take a chair at NYU Law, while being a Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover institute. He seems like a smart guy, and his name gets thrown around as being a legitimate voice in support of something whenever it suits the thrower.

So why is he a pariah today? He wrote that the coronavirus predictions were exaggerated, that the models were flawed and that it wasn’t going to be anywhere as severe as commonly thought.

The Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein also waves a flag of caution regarding the COVID-19 dashboards that many news networks and online sites now prominently feature. Epstein’s analysis shows that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and worldwide will be dramatically fewer than many have predicted — possibly even fewer than the Hong Kong flu of 1968, the swine flu pandemic of 2009-2010 or seasonal influenza, which can claim hundreds of lives a day.

And Epstein wasn’t the only “smart” person to raise doubts.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Nobel laureate and Stanford biophysicist Michael Levitt throws a hope-inducing bucket of cold water on the nonstop alarmism being repeated by some in the media and in public office.


That is the point of another Stanford professor of medicine and epidemiology, John Ioannidis. In an article for Stat, Ioannidis breaks down why our governments are making decisions without reliable data or based upon flawed models.

This isn’t “amplified” here because I share their views or their doubts. I’m neither as smart nor qualified to have an opinion on medical and epidemiological models at others. Then again, Epstein is a law prof, so maybe he isn’t qualified either, although that didn’t stop him.

Rather, I bring this up because of the outrage over Epstein’s (and the others) contention that the majority view is wrong. How dare he challenge wiser people than himself? How dare he be wrong? This is where psychologist Pamela Paresky’s post at ArcDigita came into play.

By now, commentators have noted the similarities between our coronavirus crisis and the classic “trolley problem,” first formulated by the late philosopher Philippa Foot.

Imagine there’s a runaway trolley heading straight for five people who will be killed. You’re standing next to a lever. If you pull it, the trolley will switch to a different track where only one person will be killed.

Most people say the moral choice is to spare the five and sacrifice the one. This may be akin to how many conceive of extreme measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus: The right thing to do is to issue and enforce stay-at-home orders and shutter businesses for as long as it takes to spare the maximum number of people at greatest risk from the virus.

This is about as far as most people get, it being sufficient to confirm their views. It has the imprimatur of morality as enforced by philosophers and allows us to take comfort in knowing we’re doing the right thing, the moral thing. Yay us. But Paresky’s not done yet.

For many of those who are certain that this is the only moral solution, the choice seems crystal clear. It appears to be a tradeoff between lives and money — that is, between a sacred value and a secular interest. This is what social scientist Philip Tetlock calls a “taboo tradeoff.”

When a tradeoff is taboo, there is no discussion or debate possible. Choosing the sacred value is entirely uncontroversial. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it, “I’m not willing to put a price on a human life,” and “we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable.”

Epstein’s challenge to the common wisdom wasn’t merely wrong, but immoral, as no moral person would violate the taboo of trading human life for filthy lucre. Did we learn nothing from the trolley problem? Hold yer horses, Paresky notes.

Let me propose another version: To stop the trolley, you must push the large man off the bridge [and onto the tracks below]. But no one is entirely certain whether that will be enough. You might need to force another person off. And perhaps another. There’s no way to know in advance exactly how many people must be pushed onto the track in order to stop the trolley from killing the five people in the trolley’s path. Perhaps just one. But it could turn out that as many people must be sacrificed as will be saved.

She goes on to remind us that those questioning the “common wisdom” aren’t necessarily evil, but may be just as decent and moral as those who toe the line.

Returning to our current crisis, using this lens, skeptics aren’t the cold-hearted monsters they’re made out to be. It’s not that they care more about money than your grandmother’s life. Instead, they are thinking about the people who will suffer from unemployment, poverty, loneliness, and despair. And they are imagining some point in the future when an unknown number could die from increases in child and domestic abuse, addiction and overdose, unmet medical needs, suicide, and so on.

The argument against credible people who violate the taboo is that they mislead people by violating the inherent trust in their credentials, their ascribed credibility, and give comfort to the enemy by endorsing wrongthink. And, indeed, their thoughts may well be wrong, and their credibility may be stretched beyond the breaking point. Richard Epstein is a law professor, after all, not an epidemiologist (or any other discipline that might be directly relevant to his modeling criticisms).

But to not merely dispute his argument as being flawed, and his academic credibility based on his straying far outside his wheelhouse, but to damn him as a monster for not adhering to the common wisdom, is to stop at the most basic application of the trolley problem and never ask “what if” you have to throw as many people off the bridge as would be saved by stopping the trolley. The answer may be “no,” but if we vilify people for asking so that no one ever challenges common wisdom, we’ll never know.

*I’m informed that he didn’t retire from Chicago, but still teaches one quarter there.

13 thoughts on “Smart People Stopping Trollies

  1. miketrials

    From what I understand, and it ain’t that much I will concede, much or most of the anti-Epstein outrage stems from his reliance upon “info” or assumptions which were demonstrably inaccurate/unfounded /disingenuous at the point when he made his predictions. These predictions by a reputable individual from an “Ivy League” (actually, far better,but I am biased) school then served to bolster the administration’s Pollyanna-ish political notions that the spread of the virus was under control when it was not, etc., and the notions and claims made for no other reason than that the Cheeto-in-Chief wanted it to be so. Life is not a reality show, however, and the script often diverges from the direction where one might want the drama to head. Michael Dorf’s post last week addressed this in some detail.
    When, like Epstein, you routinely carry your politics with you, don’t be surprised if you then get judged through a somewhat political lens.

      1. miketrials

        Did it elude me? Or you? Seems like you fanned on the fat one I tossed down the middle.
        Look, I got no problem with free speech, especially the kind classed under open your mouth, remove all doubt. Hello, Donald. But, if Dorf was mostly correct, and he usually is, then Epstein was pretending to be (or perhaps failing to acknowledge, same diff) that which he plainly knew he was not. Few of us, knowing nothing, will willingly suggest someone with credentials lacks the cred. lAnd the added imprimatur of alma mater made it all the worse — to me, anyway. So my elusive issue was not the clashing with the con wis, for which you appeared to be praising Epstein, rather that he was relying upon non-existent or alternative facts to support his anti con wis, and pretending there was a there there, with apologies to La Parker. Your post, to me, seemed to be couched in terms which could justify every rhetorical outrage of the past 4 years. Two sides to every argument there are not. The earth is not flat, the Holocaust did happen (I asked Mom, she told me about it).
        I really like the blawg, even when the inside baseball excesses lose me entirely. Keep up the good work.

        1. Mikesmom

          This post was about vilifying the person rather than the argument so that challenges to common wisdom aren’t deemed heretics to be burned at the stake.

          It wasn’t hard to understand if you didn’t obsess about the mention of Epstein, who was just the latest example, rather than the concept.

  2. Guitardave

    Ditch ‘The trolley problem’. It does not frame the moral question at hand. It’s as antiquated as the use of trolleys in the modern day.

    “The New Train Problem”
    A fast train is coming to a road crossing half a mile before a switch that splits the rail line into two parallel lines. On the main line sits a school bus with 50 children in it. On the other, two homeless drunks are sleeping off a bender. The tracks the drunks are on is a special emergency diversion track for runaway trains, that when activated shuts down the power to the whole rail system, nationwide, and takes 6 to 18 months to restore service. Road vehicles have been obsoleted due draconian environmental laws, along with shortages of fuel and raw material for battery’s. Roads and bridges have fallen into an unusable state of disrepair. Every small city and town without a navigable waterway connection to an ocean stands to loose 20 to 40 percent of it’s population due to food and med shortages. Do you flip the switch?

    No need to answer, as the psychopaths at the switch have already ‘pulled it’.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Confirmation bias, The choo choo train, and cognitive bias all in one post…. How Ke-double W-and-a-L is that!

    Why not just put up the math-s (pick a few dozen models if it will make you feel better) clearly define all the assumptive data points including the non-symptomatic carrier dynamics and do the math-s.

    Then pick one, or a few, or even thrown them all in the blender and live happily ever after, in never-never-land.

    Don’t worry, if you get it wrong…. Because even if you get it right Peter Pan is sure to visit, one way or the other and let you know that thinking is hard no matter where you land.

    And he means it too.

  4. Dan

    “I’m not willing to put a price on a human life,”

    Bullshit. Every one of us does this every day. To choose just one mundane example, every time I get in a car/bus/train/plane, there’s a risk that I or someone else will not survive my intended trip. And I make the judgment that my trip is more important than that risk. This is very literally, if not very consciously, putting a price on human life. Examples could be multiplied, but I think the point is made.

  5. rojas

    Perhaps the ideologues could consider the alternate feedback loop.
    Doing the same over and over again with the expectation of different results.

  6. David

    “especially the kind classed under open your mouth, remove all doubt. Hello…”

    Hello, miketrials.

    1. miketrials

      Wow. That hurt.
      I honor your service and respect your sacrifice in carrying water for Donnie-boy. It must have been your own personal Vietnam. On a par with bone spurs, no doubt.

      1. SHG Post author

        David’s reply wasn’t remotely pro-Trump, but a smack at your insouciance. Nobody needs another asshole here.

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